NOT quite 15 years ago, the Independent MP for West Gippsland, Susan Davies, had Victoria’s future in her keeping.
Davies and two fellow independent MPs held the balance of power after the 1999 state election unexpectedly produced a hung parliament.
Over three weeks, they deliberated on whether they would support the ruling Kennett Government or the Bracks Labor Party.
In the end, they backed Labor, ending Jeff Kennett’s political career, and the rest is history.
So Davies seems well placed to comment on the chances of a strong independent candidate in the safe Liberal seat of Bass, an idea floated by Michael Whelan (Voice for Bass, anyone?, March 8, 2014 ).
She says there is certainly something in the air. “Several people have asked me the same thing lately. It’s the first time since 2002, so something’s going on.
“If it was just coming from Labor voters it wouldn’t mean much but my ears prick up when I hear the same sentiments from Liberals.
Susan Davies says a strong independent candidate would make the safe seat of Bass more marginal.
“There seems to be an unease appearing among Liberals, which is not exactly the same but not dissimilar to the dissent that let me be elected in 1997.
“There isn’t the passionate hatred that there was with the Kennett Government in 1999 but this is a finely balanced parliament where the government could fall at any moment, so there is potential for change.
She says the ALP has paid no attention to Bass for a long time. “There should be an ALP candidate out campaigning now but of course there’s not.”
“A strong independent candidate, or several, would make what’s seen as a safe Liberal seat, taken for granted by both parties, more marginal, and that’s always an advantage.”
She says she would be happy to advise anyone thinking of standing. Most importantly, an independent has to be genuinely independent, and that means issuing a split ticket on preferences. “Any purported independent who gives their preferences to one or other of the major parties is a stooge and should be labelled as such.”
Second, anyone standing as an independent needs to understand they probably won’t win.
“You have to do it with the understanding that the act of standing for Parliament is a socially useful thing to do, whether you win or not. It gives you a chance to highlight social and political issues you think are important, and it gives people the opportunity to express in a tangible form their dissatisfaction on a particular issue.”
It was dissatisfaction – in fact rage – at the Kennett Government that drew her to the ALP in 1993. Over its seven years, this government closed 350 government schools, sacked about 16,000 public transport workers, and privatised state-owned services including gas and electricity.
Davies felt they were ripping apart the state’s social fabric. “I issued a curse. That made me feel a bit better. Then I wondered what else I could do and joined the ALP.”
With three young children, a farm and a job, she agreed to stand as the ALP candidate for the safe Liberal seat of West Gippsland in 1996, losing, as expected, to Liberal stalwart Alan Brown, a minister in the government, but gaining a 5 per cent swing.
In 1997 Brown resigned to become Victoria’s consul general in London and the ALP decided not to waste time or money running a candidate. Davies was appalled and stood as an independent.
“I knew I had no chance of being elected.” But to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she was, gaining another 13.5 swing against the Liberals.
At least part of the reason, she says, was that the Liberals ran a nasty campaign against her, and it cost them votes, especially from their own supporters.
In retrospect, her election was the first sign of a regional backlash against the Kennett Government that peaked in the general election of 1999, when three independents, Davies, Russell Savage and Craig Ingram, were left holding the balance of power.
Independent politicians fantasise about being in such a position, but Davies recalls it as a period of great strain.
“There was a lot of pressure from both sides. I acknowledged at the end that there were going to be unhappy people whichever way we went.”
Deciding who would form government was not the end of the strain. Because they held the balance of power, they had to scrutinise every bit of legislation. “It nearly kills you having to choose which way you’re going to vote because if you don’t vote for something it won’t pass.
“It’s the death knell for most independents. You can see it with [former federal independents] Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The party that thinks you took their seat will come after you with a viciousness that has to be experienced to be believed.
“You have to be very bold and brave in public but it’s exhausting.”
In retrospect, she says, she would have liked a term where she wasn’t playing such a crucial statewide role but simply performing her job as a backbencher working for her constituents.
She doesn’t believe she had special political skills. “The only thing I did was to be gutsy enough to get up there and try. But getting into parliament was an accident.”
One of the joys of being an independent, she says, was being able to say what she thought.
She does not subscribe to the general contempt for politicians. She says most of the MPs she met in parliament, on both sides of the political divide, were friendly and reasonable people who had stood for genuine reasons.
“It’s a very costly exercise, not just in money but emotional terms. Putting your head above the parapet in Australia takes a bit of guts.”
A 2001 redistribution abolished the seat of West Gippsland and created the seat of Bass. She lost Korumburra and Drouin and gained part of Pakenham, an outer suburb with very different issues. At the 2002 election, she was placed third behind the ALP and, after five years in politics, returned gratefully to her previous life as a mother and small farmer.
“It was very interesting, I learnt a hell of a lot, it was exciting and it was exhausting. I didn’t have much left at the end and I much prefer my life now.
“But I’m very proud of what we did as independents. I think we played a positive role in Victoria’s politics and helped make Victoria a better place.
“The Kennett government’s ruthlessness was unprecedented. I don’t think any government would try that sort of again, or at least not for a long time.”
Too safe for our own good
Bass has been a safe Liberal seat since it was created in 2002.
In the 2010 election, Ken Smith won for Liberal with 56 per cent of the primary vote and 63 per cent on preferences.
Ken Smith is retiring at this election, but the Liberal candidate Brian Paynter, pre-selected by local Liberal members this week, is a strong favourite to retain it for the Liberals.
The ALP expects to select a candidate in the next few weeks.